Racket in the box
Answering the ‘WTF is electronica?’ riddle so that you can enjoy this weekend’s festival without fear of looking like a moron
Sacramento, CA 95814
It’s 10 years into the new millennium, and people still don’t know anything about electronica music. This weekend, though, will be a chance to enroll in a crash course: The first ever Sacramento Electronica Music Festival in Midtown.
I’m not sure whether most folks, including myself and many of the performers, have any idea what to expect, but I’m going to use these subsequent 1,000 words to both educate and also prime the pump for three days of fork-lift-in-reverse, bleep-and-blip orchestrations emanating from oblong metal boxes manned by a bunch of dudes in tight leather jackets who twist knobs and sing about post-revolution neon La-Z-Boy people movers.
OK, now, that’s an unfair stereotype. Most electronica doesn’t have vocals, for starters.
Anyway, one of the first signs that tipped me off to the fact that the broader Sacramento population has little clue about electronica was a recent throwaway blurb in our fair city’s daily paper. In the story, one of the festival’s top acts, Sister Crayon—a trip-hop influenced four-piece with kite-high vocals, robust bass bumps and wandering synths—was called out as having a “low-fi” sound.
Really? Let’s set the record straight: Sister Crayon may be dark, possibly brooding—even spiritual, if that’s your game. But the band is anything but “low-fi.”
So goes the argument: Put a few guitars, drums and a singer on a stage, and people can figure it out. It’s rock. It’s indie. It’s nu-glam art pop with a post-punk tendency. Whatever. Add some drum machines, samplers, a laptop, perhaps a Moog or otherwise unidentified fucking object, and viewers, listeners, even critics are confused.
(For the record, I confess to my own lack of knowledge. I once saw local dub-pop trio Chllngr at The Press Club and didn’t even realize Dan Osterhoff—recently featured in this paper’s Music section as DJ Whores—was actually deejaying with Chllngr’s other members, Steven Borth and Young Aundee. I thought he was just standing around behind a turntable downloading torrents or something.)
So, yeah, even I am not immune to the “WTF is electronica?” bug. Local electronica producers speak of their glitchy breaks and wobbly bumps, and I feel the urge to use Purell. I don’t know the jargon. But I’m learning.
For example, even though Sister Crayon will play the Electronica Music Festival—along with 26 other local and regional acts, including former 916er Tycho, San Francisco’s Mochipet and Sacramento’s Dusty Brown, Shaun Slaughter and the New Humans—I know that, in fact, Sister Crayon isn’t really electronica.
It’s true. I even called Sister Crayon’s lead vocalist, Terra Lopez, to clarify this snafu once and for all.
“Ms. Lopez, we know your band surely isn’t low-fi. But is Sister Crayon actually electronica?”
“Not really,” Lopez replies, gamely, via phone last week. “I mean, it’s kind of hard, because we use some electronic instruments,” like the Akai MPC1000, a machine that makes drum sounds with your fingertips, she says. So, OK, the band isn’t really electronica, but they love electronica. Doesn’t that count for something?
“We love Tycho, too,” Lopez adds. “Everyone in the band is ecstatic about him.” All right, that’s cool, they’re in for the festival.
And maybe this is what makes the Sacramento Electronica Music Festival so promising: It runs the gamut, tapping into some 20 years of local music, highlighting electronica in its various forms: solo producers. Deejays. Bands that incorporate electronic sounds. Bands with electronica producers as members. Artists who hit play then meander over to the bar for 30 minutes of drinks and jaw.
Back in the day, it wasn’t so easy. The electronica scene was just a bunch of guys with a shitload of gear hanging around in coffeehouses and warehouses.
Evan Schneider, who’s been producing electronica music since the mid-’90s under the moniker Tha Fruitbat, witnessed firsthand this evolution. The first show he remembers playing was in 1997 at a coffeehouse-cum-24-hour-computer-gaming den in Citrus Heights. He performed with Dusty Brown, and he and Dusty were the outsiders. “The whole music scene back then was definitely about deejays,” says Schneider, who was a producer toting samplers and drum machines and a boatload of other gadgets.
In time, technology improved, and life became easier for electronica artists. Schneider remembers that Dusty started using a computer. “He kind of blew everybody’s mind in the early years. And he taught everybody how to make music [with a computer],” he recalls.
Later, Schneider and Dusty, along with Tycho, Park Avenue Music and Chachi Jones, formed Command Collective, a quote-unquote electronica “troupe” that’d play local coffeehouses, like the former Espresso Metro on 12th Street downtown, along with DJ Mupetblast.
All of these guys will play the Electronica Festival, sans Chachi, and all are unequivocally electronica. Others—the New Humans, various deejays—not so much. But still welcome.
“More people are opening up to [electronic music],” Schneider observes. “Sooner or later, every other band is going to have a laptop guy.”
Today, the more popular electronica genres are dubstep, electro, breakbeat, house, drum ’n’ bass and glitch. What the hell does all this mean?
Well, here’s the part of the story where all the musicians sigh: Dubstep is uptempo, bass-heavy, shuffled dance music. Electro usually has a dominant kick drum and a mod-funk dance style. Breakbeat is similar to electro though more organic, but still syncopated and offbeat. House is dance, but more straightforward and with a traditional time signature. Drum ’n’ bass is old-school, superfast-tempo dance featuring, duh, bass and drums. Glitch splices together samples of music to create beats. All of these genres are subclassified under IDM, or intelligent dance music.
Traditionally, the electronica artist “peforms” behind a table adorned with his or her cherished gadgets, nodding approval as the beats dump thick through hopefully awesome speakers as the audience jives accordingly. Traditional rock critics oftentimes pan electronica sets for their ostensible insouciance—just a dude behind a computer pumping his arms—but don’t let this cynicism discourage. It’s about the power of the beats, which takes a thoughtfulness and focus on the part of the beat maker.
It’s your job to suck it in—what with its high-fi glory—for they are the teachers, young grasshoppers.